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Metaphors: Not Your Poetic Rival, but an Everyday Exercise

Metaphors, the literary superior of simile, are most often only perceived in a literary and/or artistic context. However, with not much arduous work, one can discover the permeating system of metaphors in our everyday lives.

For example, we often speak of life as a “journey” and social media as “platforms”—both are physicalizations of an abstract concept that aids in their understanding. Metaphors, as some propose, not only aid comprehension but serve as a platform of intermediation embedded in our cognition: we speak in metaphors because we think in metaphors.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson first introduced the idea of the conceptual metaphor in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By. The general definition of such a metaphor is the mapping of one conceptual domain onto another—e.g. “The price is rising” is mapping quantity onto directionality—and the two domains are respectively entitled target domain (the one we are attempting to understand) and source domain (the one we are well-acquainted with).

Mapping is defined as the pathway by which one can follow from the source to the target domain: in other words, a commonality of the two domains/a traceable similarity that constitutes the metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson). Other cognitive scientists, such as Gilles Fauconnier and Raymond W. Gibbs, observe the same phenomenon (though the language of identification slightly differs).

Now, where Lakoff and Johnson’s proposal differs from past identification of metaphors in linguistics is its emphasis on the cognitive aspect: it identifies metaphor as part of thought and not merely of language. The mapping of conceptual metaphors is suggested to be based on pre-linguistic schemas: images such as space and time that existed before language. Lakoff and Johnson’s main proof for such a theory is the unidirectionality of conceptual metaphors—the source domain being the abstract and the target domain being the concrete. They provide many exemplifying instances: argument as war, love as a journey, social organization as plants, etc. (Lakoff and Johnson). Further proof for the primitiveness of conceptual metaphors emerged in a 2013 study by Christoph D. Dahl and Ikuma Adachi, who observed the same presentation of conceptual metaphors in chimpanzees as they demonstrated a linear understanding of social hierarchy (e.g. top status is physically on top) in their reaction to chimpanzee faces from different social statuses (Dahl and Adachi).

This theory also naturally lends itself to the philosophy of embodiment (or embodied cognition), which states that cognition is altered and formed through not only the brain but all parts of an organism—e.g. perceptual systems, experiences, etc. For Lakoff and Johnson, the concrete source domains represent the physical neural body and the abstract target domains represent the conceptual cognition. Language, then, as metaphors do, neatly fits between the two.


Works Cited

  1. Dahl, Christoph D., and Ikuma Adachi. “Conceptual Metaphorical Mapping in Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes).” ELife, vol. 2, 2013, doi:10.7554/elife.00932.

  2. Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996.

Last Fact Checked on May 21st, 2021.


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